The environmental activism group Greenpeace announced Monday it had sent a ship to escort a Russian tanker carrying the first oil from the Arctic.
The Greenpeace vessel “Rainbow Warrior III” will meet and accompany to port the Mikhail Ulyanov tanker, to protest the start of production from the Prirazlomnaya oil rig. The platform is run by Russia’s state-owned oil company, Gazprom, and it’s the first offshore rig to ever begin commercial drilling operations above the Arctic circle. Gazprom also chartered the Mikhail Ulyanov, which left the platform on April 18 with its very first shipment of oil.
The tanker travelled from the Prirazlomnaya oil field along Russia’s northern coast, through the Barents Sea and down the Norwegian coast, and is scheduled to arrive in Rotterdam in the next few days. Meanwhile, the Greenpeace vessel set out from the Netherlands to intercept it. According to the Barents Observer, Greenpeace said they wish to escort the tanker to Rotterdam, but it’s not clear if the 23 people on board the Rainbow Warrior III will try to board the Mikhail Ulyanov, or if some other form of protest will be attempted.
“We do not disclose in advance what we are going to do,” Greenpeace activist Patric Salize told the Agence France-Presse, “but I can assure you we will send a clear message to the world that this oil is very dangerous.”
This isn’t the first time Prirazlomnaya rig has clashed with Greenpeace. This past September, 28 activists and two freelance journalists were arrested by Russian officials after protesting the rig from their ship, the “Arctic Sunrise.” Two of the campaigners attempted to scale the rig, prompting the arrest of the whole group — dubbed the “Arctic 30″ — on charges of piracy. They were detained for 100 days, and often kept in harsh and freezing conditions, before their charges were reduced to hooliganism and then unexpectedly dropped entirely on Christmas Day. The Arctic Sunrise is still being held by Russian authorities.
Peter Willcox, one of the Arctic 30, is captaining the Rainbow Warrior III on its current voyage.
Due to regions’s harsh conditions, the safety of offshore oil drilling in the Arctic — or lack thereof — has been an international flashpoint for some time. Simon Boxall, an oil spill expert from the University of Southampton who played a key role in analysis of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, told the Guardian in November that if drilling tin the Arctic went ahead “it is inevitable you will get a spill — a dead [certainty]. I would expect to see a major spill in the not too distant future. I would be astonished if you did not see a major spill from this.”
Shell Oil abandoned its own ambitions in the Arctic in early 2014, after a federal appeals court ruled the U.S. government had not properly assessed the risks, and after a string of equipment failures, dangerous ice conditions, and late permits forced the company to scuttle offshore drilling near Alaska in 2013.
The Prirazlomnaya oil field reportedly contains about 72 million tons of recoverable oil (or 610 barrels), and production is anticipated to reach six million tons annually sometime after 2020. All told, the Arctic holds as much as one-third of the undiscovered oil and gas resources still left on the globe, most of which is offshore.
“There are many places in the world we can drill, and the Arctic is not a place we want to be,” said Patrice de Vives, Total’s Vice President of Northern European operations. Total’s Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie added, “a leak would do too much damage to the image of the company.”
Greenpeace did not hesitate to ding Total for the juxtaposition. “Its CEO has already pledged not to drill in the icy waters of the far north, and yet he is apparently happy to buy the stuff if Gazprom takes on the risk,” Greenpeace oil campaigner Ben Ayliffe said in a statement.
“Mr De Margerie cannot have his cake and eat it.”